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teaching flexibility to egyptian teams

Egyptians can be legendarily flexible: who hasn’t experienced such brilliant ad hoc problem solving as a coat hanger serving as a satellite antennae, a screw and pliars used as a corkscrew, thread to seal a leaky water joint or even a car steering wheel in place of handlebars on a bicycle? To name but a few.

But we’ve also experienced the incredible dogmatic inflexibility of someone who just won’t budge an inch and shift THEIR way of doing something to one that is obviously better, quicker and more appropriate. Or the type who having been shown a method and having appropriated it as THEIRS spend a lot of time manoevring and trimming reality to suit their method. There’s even an Egyptian story to cover it- a man finds a falcon and trims its beak and claws and finally pronounces- “At last you really do look like a pigeon”. Of course these characteristics occur in the West too, but there the culture of innovation is more entrenched and can be easily referenced and used to coerce intransigent team members. For a while I thought this 'situational inflexibility' of some Egyptians was unavoidable, just part of the cultural scene.

But the more I worked with Egyptians the more I saw that there was a way around this chronic inflexibility and it’s ally, lack of sensible initiative taking. One actually leads to the other: once you put TOTAL value on your way of doing things then taking the initiative- which by definition means doing something new- will involve a deviation from your methods and hence must be avoided at all costs.

The way out of the problem is to see it from the Egyptian perspective. To the chronically inflexible team member changing your method is seen as SELLING OUT.

That’s right- think of a writer in Britain penning poetry for a tiny magazine and someone suggests- “hey you’re a good writer why not try and do an episode of Eastenders?” Answer- total outrage, inconceivable, an attack on my integrity etc. or the avant guard composer who you suggest might pen a eurovision song contest number or even a film score. Or the conceptual artist you ask to do a mural on your kid’s wall of Disney characters…

Selling out.

To the 'situationally inflexible' Egyptian his integrity lies in having a ritualized pattern of work. A set of things he does at certain times and in a certain way. And he or she may well have been very creative in arriving at this pattern or not. But once it is in place the object is to stick to it. The more he can stick to this the better he has done, the less he has sold out. If he deviates, even if it results in a win for those employing him, he won’t be happy as his system has been breached, he has compromised his integrity. Now this may not be an exact explanation of what is happening but it works as a form of cultural comparison. We are all familiar with the concept of 'selling out' and have a grudging respect for those who don't. That respect, if transferred to inflexible Egyptian workers could be the injection of goodwill always required if you want to help someone change.

A ‘good day’ for a typical European team player is when hard work or a good idea results in a win either for them as an individual or for the team. A ‘good day’ for an Egyptian team player with an over developed sense of integrity is one where his integrity (his own way of doing things, his routine) has not been breached and neither has his team’s.The task, then, is to take these potentially very flexible team members who are mired in a false conception about what constitutes GOOD WORK which has made them inflexible in certain respects, and get them to view flexibility, initiative taking and bending to suit a new situation, in a different light. As not selling out but as being on the crest of a new and exciting wave of behaviour, linked perhaps with new and exciting forms of technology which are always eagerly embraced. ipod creating behaviour so to speak.

Part one is to explain all this.

Part two is to instill it through exercises, games and discussion.


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